The ITC regulates to ensure that the quality and diversity of programmes on ITV, Channels 4 and 5, and of the output of the Public Teletext Service, conforms with the commitments made in the individual licences.
Alongside these continuing functions, the year included a number of particular projects. The first of these was the detailed assessment of the various applications for digital terrestrial multiplex licences. Consideration of the proposals for programme services was an important part of this process, which culminated in the award of licences in June.
In the second half of the year, the ITC conducted a thorough review of the Programme Code, consulting with licensees and other interested parties on a wide range of proposed amendments. A revised Code was issued early in January 1998 which included clearer guidelines about the portrayal of violence, payment to criminals, and the use of promotional material. It also provided new guidance about the provision of programme information, fairness to innocent parties, the definition of public interest, and the use of advertisements in programmes, amongst other matters of concern.
New rules for the provision of Pay-Per-View (PPV) services on cable and satellite channels were drawn up, and subsequently incorporated in the revised Programme Code. These permitted the normal 'watershed' scheduling restrictions to be relaxed for an experimental period providing PPV reception was subject to a mandatory PIN number system or equivalent mechanism to ensure that children did not have direct access to unsuitable adult material. Other requirements included the provision to subscribers of a full explanation of the security procedures, and a suitable research programme to enable a proper appraisal of the effectiveness of the system.
Following a comprehensive consultation exercise, the ITC also established minimum requirements for subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing on Channel 3 to take effect from 1999. Modification to the original proposals took account of the difficulties likely to be experienced by ITV companies in reaching high subtitling levels. Nevertheless, the basic requirement for 80 per cent of programmes to be subtitled, proposed in the consultation document, was retained.
Changes were proposed to Channel 4's licence in order to broaden and strengthen its public service commitments. After public consultation, a wide range of changes were agreed including increased levels of original and regional production, and enhanced commitments in a number of programme and programme-related areas.
Channel 3 (ITV), Channel 4 and Channel 5 have to meet significant 'positive' programme requirements. On Channels 3 and 5, services must include specific strands of programmes and minimum amounts of time allocated to each of them. These strands are drama, entertainment, sport, news, factual programmes (including current affairs), education, religion, arts and children's programming. The regional Channel 3 companies are also required to broadcast programmes of particular regional interest and in some cases sub-regional interest. In 1997, an average of 99 per cent of regional programmes was made in each region.
Channel 3 licensees must originally produce or commission, rather than acquire, a minimum of 65 per cent of programmes (including repeats); the equivalent requirement for Channel 5 is 59 per cent. In the case of Channel 3, 73 per cent (including GMTV) was achieved in 1997. In the case of Channel 5 the figure was 59 per cent. Overall, the output has to be diverse in its appeal.
The national breakfast-time licensee (GMTV) is required to broadcast minimum amounts of programming defined as news, entertainment, sport, factual, education, religion and children's.
Channel 4 is also committed to the provision of specific programme strands but the Channel is intended to have a distinctive character of its own. It has a statutory duty to provide a service which contains a suitable proportion of material calculated to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by Channel 3, and to encourage innovation and experiment in both the form and content of programmes.
Channel 4 is also required to broadcast schools programmes in term time and provide a full range of support material. Towards the end of the year work was progressing on strengthening and updating the terms of the Channel 4 licence. Other important licence conditions which apply to Channels 3, 4 and 5 cover requirements for material of European origin (a majority of the transmission time for certain categories of programmes) and that at least 25 per cent of qualifying programmes broadcast are made by independent producers. The figures achieved in 1997 by regional Channel 3 licensees, GMTV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 respectively were, 69, 78, 63 and 57 per cent; and 28, 54, 83, and 71 per cent.
The regional Channel 3 companies are required to operate a system in which programmes are 'networked' throughout the UK.
Subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing must be extended so that by 1998 at least 50 per cent of all programmes must be subtitled. In 1997 a total of 51 per cent was achieved. The ITC announced in October that by the year 2004, 80 per cent of all Channel 3 programmes must be subtitled. With regard to Channel 5, at least 50 per cent of all programmes must be subtitled by the sixth year of the service. Although this statutory requirement does not apply to Channel 4, it has undertaken voluntarily to meet it.
Finally, the Channel 3 companies and Channel 5 must each fulfill the proposals for training contained in their licence applications and promote equal opportunities in relation to their staff. In the case of Channel 4, what is set out in its licence on training and equal opportunities must be fulfilled.
The ITC does not preview programmes or programme items. It is up to the licensees to decide, within the framework of the Code and their licences, whether particular items are suitable for broadcast and at what time.
The ITC does, however, monitor performance to ensure that individual programmes and the output of each channel as a whole meet the standards and requirements laid down in the Programme Code and the individual company licences. These include regular staff monitoring of programmes (at the time of transmission or on videotape) both centrally and in the regions; viewers' complaints to the ITC and to licensees; ITC audience research; opinions from the ITC's 11 Viewer Consultative Councils (VCCs); and post-transmission data from licensees describing the type, duration and source of each programme.
Two events dominated the year's news agenda the landslide election of a Labour Government and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Each presented different challenges to terrestrial broadcasters and different problems for the regulator.
Those associated with the election were neither new nor unexpected: the allocation and, to a lesser extent, the content of Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) and the obstacle to free and fair reporting represented by Section 93 of the Representation of the People Act. The latter is the provision that gives candidates the right of veto over constituency coverage in which any other candidate takes part. The ITC gave guidance on what was and was not possible. This experience confirmed ITC belief in the necessity for the repeal or reform of Section 93 of the Act. On the matter of PEB allocation, the ITC required Channels 4 and 5 to take the nationalist parties' broadcasts and upheld the terrestrial channels' decision to award the Referendum Party only one broadcast, a judgement of which the Party unsuccessfully sought judicial review. Broadcasters themselves took action in certain cases to ensure that PEBs complied with ITC code requirements. A PEB by the Pro Life Alliance Party was required by the broadcasters to be modified on grounds of 'taste and decency'.
Small but important changes were required by commercial broadcasters (but not the BBC) to the British National Party's PEB in order to preserve the privacy of identifiable individuals and the anonymity of a multi-racial school in east London featured in the broadcast. The preservation of 'due impartiality' in election coverage presented no significant regulatory problems. Overall, the ITC concluded that broadcasters provided programming that was fair and impartial and put policy alternatives across well.
Unlike the election, the technical and journalistic challenges presented by the circumstances of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, were unprecedented. They involved marshalling resources very early on a Sunday morning in response to an unexpected event of huge significance; and then striking the right note throughout the following week against a background of widespread and unstable public emotion. As the main provider of news and comment to the network ITN's performance was exemplary, but both GMTV and regional services also deserve praise for their various treatments of the story. It is noticeable that 'viewer research' after the event indicates a clear concern with the level as opposed to the quality of coverage. Undoubtly many believed that its intensity was inappropriate, especially in the days leading up to the funeral.
The portrayal of on-screen violence was of marginally less concern to viewers (as measured by complaints received) than in 1996. The ITC intervened with licensees on seven occasions, the same as in 1996. Unlike the previous year no individual intervention was sufficiently serious to warrant a formal warning. However six concerned pre-watershed programmes, where particular care is needed.
Some cartoon animation continued to develop in more sophisticated and realistic ways and, in style and content, there was a convergence with the computer games which frequently challenge children to pit their skills against violent threat. Replicated in children's television, this is a source of concern to many parents, even those who are familiar with the contents of their children's home playstation. The ITC shares this concern and intervened twice in 1997 on account of overly aggressive animated action.
Greater realism was also evident in news reporting. The temptation for broadcasters to make full use of increasingly portable equipment has led to a new genre of factual programming which encompasses police film of accidents, shoot outs in the street and footage of human catastrophe caught accidentally on camera. The acceptability of such material depends on appropriate scheduling and contextualisation. The ITC intervened once in 1997 when these considerations were not apparent.
The ITC has consistently taken a firm line against any admixture of a non-consensual sexual element to violence within programmes shown in family viewing time. Two popular drama series and a film dealing with child sex abuse, all broadcast in family viewing time, were publicly censured for lapses in this area.
The reporting of sexual offences against children raised problems of a different kind in the course of the year. In line with other media, television may not broadcast any information which, perhaps in conjunction with different pieces of information in other media, might lead to the identification of the child or children concerned. The Programme Code gives very specific guidance on how this can be avoided and it was regrettable that on two occasions this year it was not followed.
In regulatory terms, the most controversial series of the year on any terrestrial service was Channel 4's Brass Eye. Innovative in concept and satirical in intent, one of its techniques was to invent unlikely propositions and then persuade well-known public figures to support them or at least take them seriously.
This was an objective that almost inevitably entailed such public figures not being made adequately aware of the format, subject matter and purpose of the programme and the broadcaster thereby being in breach of the Programme Code. A subsequent revision to the Programme Code accepted that there could exceptionally be a legitimate public interest defence in such a situation. In addition, two individual programmes in this series breached separate Code requirements relating to taste and decency and images of very brief duration.
Taste and decency issues continued to attract the largest number of complaints from viewers, but there was no individual breach of the Code on any terrestrial service in 1997 sufficiently serious to warrant a formal warning or more serious sanction.
Among programme treatments the ITC defended in this area, were an educational series, Love Bites, designed to provide positive and responsible advice about personal relationships in a manner appealing to teenagers; and two storyline developments in popular drama serials, one dealing with euthanasia, (Brookside), the other with the introduction of a dysfunctional family into a stable community (Coronation Street).
The number of viewer complaints about bad language was significantly down on 1996 although there were four interventions (three against Channel 4, one against LWT) for instances of the kind of offensive language for which there is virtually no defence prior to the 9pm watershed.
Two of those programmes were live transmissions. Notwithstanding immediate on-air apologies, the ITC regards such language as a serious breach of standards and warned both licensees that stricter editorial controls should be put in place.
There was just one instance in 1997 when infringement of the individual citizen's right to privacy resulted in ITC intervention though there were some others where, though Programme Code requirements were not breached, the ITC expressed the view that individuals could have been more fairly treated by broadcasters. There were no instances, in any terrestrial service, of privacy infringement resulting from the use of secret filming. The 1996 Annual Report recorded a concern that an increase in recourse to secret filming by some licensees indicated that it was being regarded as a routine procedure rather than, as it should be, a last resort. This was raised with licensees at the beginning of 1997 with the result that the most recent review recorded a decrease in its use.
There were a number of occasions when the ITC had reason to ask questions of licensees as to commercial references in programmes for which there appeared to be no editorial or dramatic justification. It is almost impossible to establish whether external influence or internal carelessness lies behind these, but interventions were recorded in cases where, whatever the background, the impression was created of suspect editorial integrity. Following breaches in four separate areas of the Programme Code over a five-year period towards the end of the year, the ITC issued a formal warning to Channel 4 that standards of compliance had to be improved.
The large number of licences issued for cable and satellite services lends diversity to the programming without the need to impose obligations to achieve the same result. Regulation is therefore restricted to consumer protection and, in general, the same Codes apply to these services as to Channels 3, 4 and 5. Even so, there are some differences in the way that the Codes are applied and there are a small number of instances where different rules have been thought appropriate.
In particular, for those viewers who choose to make a special subscription in order to receive premium-rate channels, mostly for access to films and sport, the greater control afforded to parents allows a degree of flexibility. This enables some '15' rated films to be scheduled at 8pm (rather than 9pm) on the specialist film channels. It also allows material of a more adult nature to be included after 10pm although nothing more explicit than would be found in videos classified '18'.
Pay-Per-View (PPV), previously limited to a few boxing matches and other events, finally launched in earnest in December with Sky's Box Office film service consisting of four 'screens' each offering one film per day. Since every individual programme is specifically chosen and billing systems will ensure that subscribers are fully informed of every viewing in the home, the ITC accepted that, where a PIN system or equivalent security mechanism is in place and where satisfactory information is provided to viewers about this new form of delivery, dispensation from the usual watershed rules would be appropriate. Even so, films rated '18' were restricted to screenings only after 8pm. The effectiveness of this regime for this, and any other PPV services operating, is to be analysed after approximately six months or so, following extensive research of the outcome of these measures.
The growth of programme services continued with a number wishing to establish an analogue presence before the move to digital transmission in 1998 allows them to offer a fuller service. Among the new names were the three new channels in the BBC-Flextech joint venture under the brand name of UKTV, the National Geographic Channel and a version of MTV tailored specifically for the UK market.
The ITC also licenses foreign language services aimed primarily, or wholly, at audiences in other countries. Following the clarification of the rules which define which services fall within this country's jurisdiction, the licences of four services transmitting to other countries were revoked, but these were more than replaced by a large number of new applicants wishing to serve overseas audiences.
New cable services were restricted by the fact that all cable systems are full. Services like Rapture (for teenagers) and Knowledge TV were able to get only very limited carriage while others like Animal Planet is not available in this country at all. Local television services also suffered from this pressure although Live TV continued to expand its City TV network of local stations.
Those who subscribe to pay television have a different relationship to the services they have purchased than do viewers of the terrestrial services. One reflection of this is the very low level of complaints that the ITC receives, around 200 each year. Very few programmes generate more than one or two complaints. The ITC is undertaking research to probe the reasons for this.
A formal warning was issued to BSkyB following the inclusion in the programme Real TV UK, shown on Sky One, of documentary footage of people suffering extended pain and serious injury. The ITC emphasised that 'reality' programmes must not be allowed to exploit such material for entertainment purposes. Formal warnings were also issued to Live TV for a breach of rules on the use of secretly filmed material, and the Christian Channel for a repeated breach of the ban on the inclusion of exorcisms in programmes. At the same time the Commission imposed three fines totalling £90,000 on MED TV, a service for Kurdish viewers, for three separate breaches of the requirement for due impartiality.
In February 1997 the ITC notified the Department of National Heritage that the foreign satellite service Satisfaction Club Television had regularly included programmes breaching British standards of taste and decency and recommended that it should be the subject of a proscription order under section 177 of the Broadcasting Act 1990. This order was made in April. A similar notification was sent in October to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in respect of the Eurotica Rendez Vous service.
The revision of the European Directive 'Television Without Frontiers' made no change to that section which imposes on relevant cable and satellite companies the need to include 'where practicable' a majority of European material. The ITC continues to collect the statistics from licensees on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that retains responsibility for ensuring compliance. Recent statistics indicate a continuing increase in the proportion of European programmes on licensed services.
The table (on page 40) shows, by category, complaints received by the ITC in 1997. The total of 2,894 represents an increase of 6 per cent over 1996. Most complaints concerned terrestrial services; indeed the number of cable and satellite complaints fell from 209 in 1996 to 142.
Perhaps surprisingly in a General Election year, complaints about political impartiality remained at similar levels to the previous year.
However the number of complaints about racial offence more than doubled. This was to a large extent accounted for by a party election broadcast by the British National Party which drew 88 complaints. Although the ITC did not uphold these, concluding that the broadcast did not breach the Programme Code, it sympathised with viewers who found it racially offensive. Complaints about fairness also increased considerably, due to a small number of programmes which attracted substantial postbags. Two editions of Against Nature, a critique of environmentalism, drew 151 complaints in all, 129 of which were received in 1997. The ITC did not find the series unfair overall, but upheld complaints from four individuals whose views the programmes misrepresented. 78 viewers contacted the ITC, many as a result of a magazine article, about a 3D report dealing with motorcycle accidents. The ITC did not uphold the complaints.
Bad language complaints fell by 26 per cent from 1996. Those about violence fell slightly. The ITC upheld 61 of the 232 complaints it received about violence, including 19 about Reboot, an animated children's series, and 18 about Child of Rage, a feature film whose content was unsuited to its afternoon scheduling on Channel 5.
There was a 46 per cent increase in complaints about sexual portrayal, with the hard-hitting drama-documentary about child abuse No Child of Mine attracting the largest number (54). The ITC did not uphold these, finding that the programme had dealt responsibly with a difficult subject. Seventeen complaints about the treatment of sexual behaviour in an edition of the satirical series Brass Eye were upheld.
The largest complaint category remained 'other taste and decency' which, as ever, reflected a range of issues hard to classify elsewhere. Examples included an interview with Ronnie Biggs in Wish You Were Here, the content of the regional teenage advice series Love Bites and new storylines in Coronation Street, which provoked a steady stream of complaints throughout the year.
In 1997 the ITC upheld wholly or in part 257 complaints (9 per cent of the total received) about 48 individual programmes, and intervened, without complaint, on a further 20. Details of upheld complaints, interventions and programmes which attracted significant numbers of complaints were published in the monthly Programme Complaints and Interventions Reports.
Channel 3 regional licensees reported receiving a total of 30,287 complaints in 1997 compared with 33,521 in 1996. Complaints received by Channel 4 rose in 1997 to 16,087 compared with 13,936 in 1996. Complaints received by Channel 5 in the first nine months of its service were 6,206. Complaints to GMTV fell from 370 in 1996 to 188 last year.
Teletext Limited continued to broadcast on Channels 3 and 4 (and S4C in Wales) under the terms of the Public Teletext Service licence issued by the ITC in 1992.
The service called 'Teletext' provides a broad range of information in text form, including national and international news, sport and weather as well as information on finance, education, leisure and entertainment, the environment and employment. Separate pages of regional news, weather and sports as well as local events and local information are provided for all 15 Channel 3 regions.
The ITC licence sets out the core requirements of the service. It specifies the minimum numbers of main pages which must be transmitted at all times in the different subject categories (news, sport, weather, financial information, etc); minimum figures are also separately specified for regional and non-regional pages. Among other requirements, the licensee must, in accordance with the Broadcasting Act 1990, ensure that the service of national and international news is of high quality. The licence also includes a specific section on dealing with complaints from viewers.
In July, the ITC awarded the licence for a text service on Channel 5 to Sky Five Text Ltd. Under the terms of the legislation, no positive programming or quality threshold requirements attach to the licence although the service must comply with the ITC Code for Text Services (see Regulation below). The service began in the autumn and included news, weather and travel as well as advertising.
The Broadcasting Act 1996 brought all commercial text services (except those on cable channels) under the ITC's regulatory control and during 1997 the ITC issued a Code for Text Services, which replaced the Public Teletext Code and includes sections on taste and decency and impartiality as well as sponsorship and advertising.
ITC staff monitor the services and deal with viewers' complaints where they relate either to the licence or the Code. The ITC formally intervenes with licensees where it believes that a Code or licence condition has been breached.
Further text services are provided in two forms:
1) Ancillary services provided by the Channel 3 licensees and Channel 4 within their own signal capacity.
The ancillary services comprise special pages of text material which carry information about the television programmes on the corresponding main service.
The information shown must be directly related to the television programme's content and may include material relating to the promotion of programmes and the listing of programmes in the service.
2) Commercial Additional Services licensed separately by the ITC, in addition to the Public Teletext Service, on spare capacity within the signal carrying the main broadcasting services on Channel 3, Channel 4 and S4C.
A proportion of the overall capacity is allocated for subscription or commercial use. The service on Channel 3 is operated by Data Broadcasting International Ltd (DBI) and on Channel 4 and S4C by SimpleActive Ltd.